Monday, April 30, 2012

little was never so big

When God walked among us, Jesus loved children.

He was always patient, always kind. They often interrupted and asked a lot of questions and talked too much (especially the four-year-olds, I am sure). They were loud; they were children. But he was not annoyed or irritated. He was never too busy. They were never too little.

He told them stories. They surrounded him. They believed him. They knew he came from God, because he said so. They took front row seats at the miracles. They gasped when the blind beggar opened his eyes. They cheered when the lame man took his first step. They were not afraid to sing his praises: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest!" while the adults grumbled and plotted the savior's death.

He knew them by name. Sometimes, he would say, "Come!" Most of the time, he did not need to; they flew into his open arms. He held the babies, laid his hand on the bigger ones. And he would pray, and pray, and pray for them. He would tell his disciples: "Turn, and be like children."

He was kind to fathers, and especially to mothers. He remembered pregnant women, mothers of young children, and single moms, the widows. When their children were hungry, he fed them. When their children were sick, he healed them. And when all hope was gone, he raised their little ones from the dead.

Jesus loved children.

When God lived among us, he covered his glory with the face of a fetus, wrapped in a virgin's womb. A small, narrow place for the Maker of stars. He was a baby. He was fed, held, swaddled.

Little was never so big;
big was never so little.

Scripture references:
Matthew 9:24-25; 11:2;14:21; 15:38; 17:18; 18:2-5; 19:13-14; 21:15-16; 24:19.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Jonah did not say sorry

We think we know the story. We have all read it in picture books and heard it in Sunday school: Jonah disobeys, Jonah says sorry, Jonah obeys. We need to be like Jonah. The end.

But Jonah did not say sorry, and he did not obey. At least not in the Bible.

Here are four things that are different in the true story:

1. Jonah's request to be thrown into the sea was an act of rebellion, not self-sacrifice.

Admitting he was wrong is very different from being sorry, and repenting. Jonah may have admitted the storm was his fault, but he wasn't sorry. Why didn't he ask God for forgiveness right away? If his intention was simply to save the sailors from the storm, why did he not jump off the ship himself? Why ask the sailors to throw him overboard?

This was not self-sacrifice; this was not obedience. He continued to run, this time pulling the sailors into his scheme. The sailors were not fooled. They were well aware that he was asking them to commit murder (Jonah 1:13-14). 

2. Jonah's prayer in the belly of the fish was self-righteous and self-centered. And he did not say sorry.

Most storybooks summarize the entire chapter two with one sentence: "Jonah prayed and said sorry for running away" or "Jonah prayed and asked God to forgive him."

But he didn't.

Chapter two contains no hint of repentance and no request for forgiveness. Instead, his prayer was about how good his was, comparing himself to the faithful and persecuted servant in Psalm 5 and 12. Quoting scripture in your prayer doesn't make it true. 

3. Jonah did not obey God after the fish vomited.

First, God gave the same command to Jonah a second time (this never happens to another prophet in the Bible). If God has to give the command again, it is not likely that he went straight to Nineveh as most storybooks would have us believe.

Second, Jonah did not proclaim God's message to the people in Nineveh. He might have told part of God's message: "In forty days, Nineveh will be destroyed." But he didn't even mention God's name! There is a distinct pattern in God's messages to those he loves and wants to rescue: Repent and believe. Jonah said none of those things. He didn't want to.

Yet, because God is God — the people repented and believed anyway!

4. Most stories end in Nineveh. But that is not the end!

Chapter four ties all it all together. It must not be skipped. Jonah throws a tantrum. A full-out, four-year-old kind of tantrum (except worse because he wasn't a four-year-old). If Jonah had repented and obeyed like most storybooks claim, why the outburst now?

Here, Jonah hung out his dirty laundry for all to see. We now know exactly why he disobeyed. Jonah ran away not because he was mad at the Assyrians or the Ninevites (Israel's enemies, as many storybooks try to explain). He was mad at God. Jonah was mad at God for being God—for being kind and patient, merciful and compassionate. The very reasons why he was still alive!

God is hero of the story. And we must tell the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.

Update (April 8, 2015): Jonah continued to stay with me for years, patiently teaching me how to pray. He taught me how to say sorry. I wrote a more recent reflection on Jonah on the Gospel Coalition Blog. 


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tis the season to be stressed out

Hans and I are both students. We live with students. We go to church and serve with mostly students. So -- we know. Deadlines and big decisions loom ahead. You don't have to be a student to understand these things. The burden weighs us down, our weaknesses glaring. Tiredness, depression, and panic seeps in. Life seeps out. We are left like dry bones, hearts barren.

'Tis is also the season when God's Word, prayer, and fasting fall by the wayside, and replaced by more urgent, "necessary" things. There is simply no time to read God's Word. Prayers are becoming mostly about me, my fears, my goals. Tell me what do you want me to do? Tell me what is your will for my life? Fasting? Completely out of the question. How am I suppose to get through the day without food?!

Welcome to my foolish head.

He has spoken, but we are not listening. He shows us the way to freedom and restoration, but we do not follow. He tells us his will for our lives, but we do not trust or believe him.

Fast and pray -- this how we must repent. This is how we are to place ourselves once more in the way of grace. Jesus did not say, “If you fast" or "If your pray” but “When you fast” and "When you pray." These are not optional; they are not electives in the syllabus.

When our flesh rebels, when we find all kinds of excuses, when we do not want to fast and pray -- this is exactly when we must fast and pray. Throw ourselves at Christ's feet. Repent. Worship. Bend our knees. Trust. Obey. Simply because he commands us to do so.

Prayer and fasting is the perfect posture to offer this God-depending, God-glorifying, flesh-denying, self-forgetting worship. These are acts of faith. This is the way of grace.

On our knees,
doing nothing,
empty, weak, hungry,
we wait,
we pray.

I am yours;
save me.

Friday, April 6, 2012

a beginning, not the end

{and how to get to know people}

After my post about how to act around people of the opposite gender, I received a lot of questions about one prevailing concern:
How do we get to know the other person? Doesn't that mean we need to spend more time with them? Didn't you talk to Hans a lot?
Me? Talking to Hans? A lot? What are you implying?

Of course we talked, a lot. But thankfully, Hans was very clear about his intention and commitment from the very beginning. We had two good things going for us (though they felt more like curses at the time). First, we lived in different cities up to our wedding day. The cellphone was pretty much all we had most of the time. Second, we were studying theology at very different graduate schools. So our discussions were often painful and ego-shattering, and often about things close to our hearts.

My cellphone wasn't able to get reception from my basement apartment. One night, I was standing under a tree, having one of these painful discussions. It started to rain and I didn't have an umbrella. Suddenly, I felt something on my shoulder. I looked, and there it was -- bird droppings. Just then, the battery died. I didn't even get to yell about my plight.

Getting to know people is not always fun.

A year later, Hans flew to New Haven for my birthday. We stood under the said tree. I had a strange feeling that he was going to propose right then. So, I walked away and demanded that he propose somewhere else.

So, how do we get to know the other person? This is an excellent question, because it is a very important question. How do were get to know anybody as a matter of fact?

Here are some thoughts that might be helpful:

1. There are many ways to get to know people that are neither intimate nor exclusive. Thoughtful listening goes a long way. Take mental notes. What do they care about? What is obviously important to them? What is obviously not important? How do they treat others? How do they talk to people? What do they talk about? How do they spend their time and money? Chances are, you are attracted (or not attracted) to him or her by something you have already observed.

2. When your commitment grows and marriage is a real possibility, time will provide some answers to more probing questions. What are their hopes and dreams? Where will their path take them? What do they love?

3. Becoming more like Christ is more important than finding the right person. When God made Eve, he did not hide her in the garden and tell Adam, "Go find her!" God created the man and the woman in his own image, and thus, they were drawn to one another. We become more like Christ by beholding him and obeying him. We become what we worship. In time and with much grace, we learn to love what Christ loves, and hate what Christ hates.

4. A wedding is a grand entrance, not a happily-ever-after. It is a beginning, not the end. I love that I am still getting to know Hans, nine years after our first conversation. I love that he still surprises me, that he is still a most interesting person to me. I love that he is still changing, still being transformed. Mostly of all, I am grateful to know whom he is following, whom he is beholding, and where this path will take us.